Samuel Ishimwe was reared on a diet of 1980s action thrillers and Hollywood B-movies. Growing up in the Rwandan capital of Kigali, a bucolic city of jacaranda trees and terraced hills, he dreamed of becoming a filmmaker and working with the larger-than-life stars he saw on TV: action heroes including Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jean-Claude van Damme who swaggered across the screen, guns blazing.
The 9,000-mile flight from Rwanda to Hollywood is a day’s journey, but in an impoverished African country with no formal film schools, it could seem no less daunting than a flight to the moon. Yet Ishimwe was determined. Orphaned by the 1994 genocide that claimed more than 800,000 lives, he’d watched his country rebuild from the rubble.
Despite the physical devastation and emotional trauma wrought by the genocide, “I had hope in my heart,” he says.
After finishing high school and getting his first job as a journalist, Ishimwe attended some of the film workshops that had begun cropping up in Kigali, hosted by the likes of Almond Tree Films, the Rwandan shingle of American helmer Lee Isaac Chung (“Munyurangabo”); and the Maisha Film Lab, director Mira Nair’s (“Queen of Katwe”) training program based in Kampala, Uganda. The short films he produced through those programs would take him to African film festivals across the globe, and in 2015 he moved to Switzerland, where he was offered a scholarship by the Geneva School of Art and Design (HEAD) to receive more formal training.
Ishimwe’s schooling reflects a DIY spirit that prevails among a generation of young African filmmakers. Working in cash-strapped countries that lack established film schools, they’re groomed on a mash-up of master classes, workshops, YouTube tutorials and the stubborn resolve to find a way to take their scripts to the screen.
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Crucially, they’re tapping into a network of film labs and training programs that are filling Africa’s higher-education gap. Helmer-driven labors of love largely bolstered by donor funding, these initiatives offer hands-on training while teaching the “basic skills of storytelling,” according to Rwandan filmmaker Eric Kabera (“100 Days”), founder of Kigali’s Kwetu Film Institute.
The ambition of Kwetu and similar programs is to have an immediate, practical impact on students’ lives. While offering an intensive, three-month crash course in the technical aspects of filmmaking, Kwetu boasts an in-house production company that pairs students with foreign shoots in Rwanda. Graduates often go on to set up their own production companies in Kigali.
“In a sense, they’ve become my competitors,” says Kabera, laughing. “Nobody calls me anymore.”
Since the release of their first feature, “Soul Boy,” in 2008, Tom Tykwer’s Nairobi-based shingle One Fine Day Films and Kenya’s Ginger Ink have partnered with Germany’s DW Akademie to train more than 1,000 young African directors, cinematographers, scriptwriters and technicians through a series of annual workshops held in Nairobi. The films produced at the end of each workshop have traveled to dozens of festivals, including Toronto and Berlin. Nair’s Maisha Film Lab has sent 700-plus alumni into film and TV industries across the continent since the first workshop was held in 2005. During the Ugandan shoot of Disney’s “Katwe” in 2015, roughly 30% of the crew consisted of Maisha alumni. “We’ve made a mark,” Nair says.
While a handful of African film schools, such as Ghana’s National Film and Television Institute (NAFTI), Benin’s Higher Institute of Audiovisual Training (ISMA) and Nigeria’s National Film Institute (NFI), teach film in a more traditional setting, they often fail to keep pace with the times.
“Many schools work with limited resources and struggle to afford quality equipment,” says Katarina Hedren, project coordinator of the Film School Network, a pan-African initiative launched in 2017 by the Goethe-Institut South Africa and funded by the German Federal Foreign Office.
“It’s all theory,” added Nicole Amarteifio, the Ghanaian creator of hit web series “An African City,” who enrolled in NAFTI after the show’s first season had already racked up hundreds of thousands of YouTube views. Amarteifio found the curriculum “lack[ed] vision,” offering less of an education than the self-taught filmmaker was already getting on set. Though she viewed her time at NAFTI as a largely positive experience that brought her into contact with her young and passionate peers, she dropped out when the administration balked at the chance to let students work with her on the show’s second season. “An African City” has since been picked up by Canal Plus’ premium pan-African entertainment channel A+, while Amarteifio is now shopping around season three to American networks and streamers.
Modernizing outdated curricula and shaking up structures resistant to change requires a massive investment of time and effort. But on a continent where education budgets are already low, “film is not a priority,” says Kwetu’s Kabera. Private film schools, including the industry-leading South African School of Motion Picture Medium and Live Performance (AFDA), have the resources to invest in state-of-the-art equipment, but it’s a business model that in most African countries “can’t be replicated unless the government is willing to pay for it,” says Garth Holmes, AFDA’s co-founder and chairman.
For programs like Maisha, Kwetu, or the Imagine Institute, established in Ouagadougou by the Burkinabe helmer Gaston Kaboré (“Wend Kuuni”), annual budgets are almost entirely underwritten by funding from the likes of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or the EU’s ACPCultures+ program.
That support is typically enough to offer students full scholarships, but also creates a donor-dependent system within what Kabera describes as “an NGO framework.” “It’s not sustainable,” he says.
“The raising of money, despite our supportive donors, is tiring,” says Nair.
Despite her frequent lobbying efforts with the Ugandan government, the director hasn’t managed to move the needle when it comes to drumming up financial support.
“They were very kind, but they didn’t take any action whatsoever,” she said. “I parlay everything I do in Hollywood for Maisha.”
Yet through the efforts of Nair, Kabera and others, a generation of young African filmmakers has had a launching pad to prestigious programs such as Berlinale Talents, the IDFA Forum and the Rotterdam Lab, as well as festivals including Tribeca, Toronto and Dubai. More important, they’re part of a network of skilled professionals who are forming the backbone of film and TV industries across the continent.
Ishimwe returned to Kigali after graduating from HEAD in 2017, taking one step closer to the Walk of Fame when his graduation film, “Imfura,” won the Silver Bear Jury Prize for shorts at this year’s Berlinale. For now, he’s focused on “Hillywood,” as the budding Rwandan film industry is affectionately known. But he hasn’t lost sight of his plan to make it to Hollywood.
“To be a filmmaker in Rwanda,” he says, “we have to have big dreams.”